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How sport management courses faced the Covid-19 crisis

Columbia University's campus displays a warning sign during the Covid-19 lockdown (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

While the Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably touched almost every aspect of modern life, the two sectors with which this publication is concerned were arguably among the hardest hit.

For sport, the implications are obvious. The industry suddenly found itself with out a product for several months, and what has returned since is a shadow of its former self, largely played out in crowdless stadiums to a backdrop of silence or artificial crowd noise.

Education has been an even trickier case. While at university level it is easier to take some aspects of the teaching online – indeed, many of the schools we profile here already offer wholly-online courses, while almost all involve some form of remote learning – being faced with doing this over a prolonged period has been a daunting proposition.

“So much of what we do is enhanced by the face-to-face aspect,” says Scott Rosner, academic director and professor of professional practice on the Sport Management programme at Columbia University. “We do almost everything in person, so for us it was really all-hands on-deck when we got the word that we’d have to be shutting down.”

The response needed to be “swift and very hands-on,” says Rosner, as he recalls having 48 hours in which to transition from having all faculty and students on campus to arranging for them all to be teaching, or learning, from their homes.

Scott Rosner (Photo by Columbia University)

“Especially for a lot of the students, they were like Joe Strummer: should they stay or should they go? We have a lot of international students, and they didn’t want to be stuck in New York indefinitely.” In the initial few days, the focus was on supporting students and ensuring everyone was safe, before putting plans in place for the rest of the academic year.

Brunel University London went as far as to charter a private flight for its Chinese students who did not wish to stay in the UK capital after the lockdown began. “We have a sizeable Chinese community and didn’t want them to feel vulnerable or be sitting on waiting lists at the whim of commercial airlines,” Vassil Girginov, who leads the school’s sport management course. “We also offered students extensions regarding their assignments, of course, and because of the different time zones students were in, we allowed them to take their exams and different times that were convenient for them.”

While the timing was not the disaster it could have been – Girginov says that most students had concluded their active classes and were about to embark on dissertations and exams when the lockdown began – the implications on university live were wide-ranging.

“We had to essentially reconsider the whole modus operandi of the university on the level of logistics. We have had to redesign our modules, what we teach and how we teach it, because the question is not just delivery. The question is also how do you ensure meaningful engagement with students so you can keep them involved and interested. It’s a massive challenge for most of us, especially those who haven’t delivered online courses before.”

Planning ahead

Rosner says that Columbia initially announced a two-week period of distance learning, though it quickly became clear that this situation was going to last beyond the fortnight, and the school has now outlined plans for three-quarters of all classes in the 2020-21 academic year to be taught online. Those that are taught physically will still see classrooms at only 28 per cent of their usual capacity, with students rotating days on which they will be present or learning virtually – and then only if they feel comfortable attending. “Right now, half our students just don’t want to be in the classroom, they’re more comfortable being remote, and I don’t want anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with,” says Rosner.

The situation is similar across the academic world, at least in Europe and the US. While some European universities, particularly the Swiss-based institutions like CIES and AISTS, where the pandemic has been better controlled, are re-opening, few are rushing a return to full classrooms. Girginov notes that the Brunel campus has been “transformed” over the summer to adhere to the UK government’s policies on social distancing and hygiene, while the university will take a “blended approach” to teaching this year, “whereby content will be delivered online, but there will be somewhat limited interactions on campus.”

Vassil Girginov (Photo by Brunel University)

Rosner is confident in his and his faculty’s ability to deal with the situation in terms of teaching, he is concerned by the loss of the sense of community he has attempted to foster on campus – though he adds that this culture is precisely what has enabled Columbia to navigate the last six months so smoothly.

“I’m a self-professed big-culture guy,” he says, “and I think that’s a really important part of our offering at Columbia. Our programme takes 12 to 16 months, and it’d be very easy to have a transactional relationship with our students: they pay their money, get their education, we position them for success for their careers and then push them out the door.

“But that’s not what motivates me. We have a lifelong relationship with our students, and that’s more difficult to foster when our interaction with them is on the other end of a computer screen. But I should add that having that culture in place has allowed us to get through this in a pretty strong fashion, because the students know that not only have we got their backs, but they’ve all got each others’ backs – the alumni supporting the current students, all reaching out to one another. What we’ve heard from the students is that their bonds are stronger than ever, they’ve been arranging get-togethers in Central Park and it’s been great to see.

Ultimately, this is likely to be what sees institutions through the coming turbulence, he says. “If your culture was strong, and your programme or your organisation was effective and was high quality before, you stood a very good chance of getting through this relatively unscathed. But if there was if there was a lack of leadership, if there was dysfunction, if there was inefficiencies under normal conditions, then under these conditions you are going to face a Herculean task to to maintain any sort of quality. And I think, honestly, that’s not just true in education.”

Opportunities

At Washington DC’s American University, Matt Winkler, professor and director of the school’s Masters in Sports Analytics & Management, used the outbreak as an opportunity to launch a series of short courses over the summer. Titled the “Entrepreneurial Toolkit for the Sports Industry: The Covid-19 Playbook” – a moniker which Winkler admits “sounds gimmicky, but it also captures what it is” –the series of webinars took place over the course of the summer, between June and August, aimed largely at mid-career professionals looking to brush up their skills in the new marketplace.

Matt Winkler (Photo by American University)

“Thanks to Covid, we’re all solo practitioners,” he says. “Everybody is exposed by this, and some people felt they didn’t have the skills to compete and stay up to date in this new world – especially a lot of 30–50-somethings who maybe weren’t involved in digital strategy before but now they have to be.”

The pandemic has also encouraged some soul-searching, and Winkler says people have come to the short courses to get a taste for sport management education after either deciding to pursue a new career or after being furloughed or made redundant from existing roles.

“It’s giving people the tools for making that career change in a short space of delivery,” he says. “It’s obviously not a hugely in-depth look into the sport industry, but we’re helping people get a grounding and preparing them to make that move if they choose to. It’s a quick shot to give everybody not just a tune-up of existing skills but also give them an exercise in experiencing what skills will be more valuable moving forward.”

Launching any kind of course at a university is always a lengthy process, says Winkler – “it has to go through the starting committee, through each relevant school, to a final committee and then to the board of directors, so it’s not easy to launch” – but adds that short courses, taking place over just a few weeks, also much greater flexibility. “One thing that’s great with this solution is that it’s easy to update them and tailor them to what’s going on.”

Girginov agrees, noting that while courses at Brunel will be updated to take the pandemic into account where it is relevant, “it has to be considered that a course is a logically considered set of different topics.”

“It’s not that simple and straightforward to just introduce new ideas into the situation because it always has many more implications,” he says. “In terms of managing risks, in terms of the impact and the need to think creatively about the situation. Covid creates many challenges and provides a number of opportunities so, yes, we will certainly reflect it in our teaching, but it’s not as straightforward as saying ‘Covid has happened’ as part of an existing course of study.”

Rosner also adds that amid the chaos, Columbia was able to take advantage of distance learning to approach a wider range of guest speakers and lecturers. “We broadened our base of industry talks. The benefit of being in New York is that, like being in London, we have a huge advantage to who we can access and bring into our classrooms and who our students can network with. But this enabled us to reach outside of New York City and bring speakers in from all over the world.”

Future implications

The lockdown and subsequent use of remote teaching while campuses remained closed is likely to accelerate the widespread adoption of online learning, though Rosner doubts that it will represent a “tipping point” where the majority of academic goes virtual.

“Both sport and education are industries where relationships are vital,” he says. “I don’t see everything going remote or a mass move away from campus and classroom-based teaching, because the relationships you forge and the connections you are able to make in person are always going to be more valuable than those done over an internet connection. But, yes, I do think we’ll see more individual online pieces to it now.”

Brunel’s campus has been “transformed” to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic, says Girginov (Photo by Brunel)

Girginov concurs, saying that while “new pedagogical approaches will emerge,” it will tend to accelerate existing trends rather than cause universities to re-write their strategies to focus exclusively online. “We’ve had to come up with different activities to address the challenges posed by this delivery process, so that we can ensure engagement, because obviously in an online mode you can’t really have one person talking for more than 10, 15 minutes. We have to think about how we bring people together and make them collaborate when they’re in different rooms and even different parts of the world. But it will be an extension of existing online pedagogies, not completely new ones.”

Rosner also feels that the pandemic will leave its mark on the higher education sector, in terms of causing both universities and students to address whether a sports administration course is viable. “There are, and for a long time have been, too many sports management programmes,” he says. “The supply of jobs that are available in the industry is far outpaced by the demand of annual graduates. So I think that the programmes that are of lesser quality may have a hard time getting through this. I think you might see a seperation between the courses that appear in the Postgraduate Rankings, some of the others that are on the edges of the top 40, and then the ones below that.”

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